The forgotten scientist
Durban - Described as the “forgotten scientist”, Saul Sithole (1908-1997) made a massive contribution to the field of anthropology and ornithology for more than 60 years.
That included the work he did for SA’s renowned ornithologist Austin Roberts, including a six-week collection trip into the wilds of Zululand in 1932, as well as being with Dr Robert Broom at the Sterkfontein Caves in August 1936 when “Mrs Ples”, the Australopithecus africanus skull was discovered.
Author Lorato Trok's new book, The Forgotten Scientist: The Story of Saul Sithole, was launched virtually this month. Hosted by BirdLife SA, it tells a fascinating story of a man who may have had no formal qualifications, but was a natural scientist in his heart and mind.
Born in Standerton and growing up in Mamelodi, Pretoria, Sithole started his career as a cleaner at the museum in Pretoria in 1928. But his quick mind soon gained recognition among academics at the museum and he joined the 1930 Vernay-Lang Kalahari Expedition as an ornithological assistant to German naturalist Herbert Lang. This was the first of many scientific expeditions during his long career.
He learned taxidermy and how to skin birds from Lang and was singled out by lead ornithologist Austin Roberts, becoming his main assistant and chief companion. Roberts’s book Birds of South Africa, first published in 1940, was immensely successful and, having been in print for more than 70 years with updates and revisions, is still regarded by birdwatchers around the world as the essential guide on Southern African birds.
An excerpt from Trok’s book includes a comment from one of Sithole’s co-workers, Matthews Mathabathe, who described him as “artistic hands on in his work. He was a handyman who could work with any scientist”.
Sithole’s bird skins can be found in the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Chicago and the British Museum of Natural History in London.
In 1932, Roberts and Sithole completed a couple of collecting trips around the country, including six weeks in Zululand, a region which has always been regarded as rich in bird diversity.
Trok, who researched Sithole’s life, gathered information from his daughter, Zondi Zitha, who died in her 90s in February last year, as well as other family members and academics who worked with him, particularly anthropologist Professor Francois Thackeray.
According to Zitha, her father spoke of the Zululand trip, telling her about a hippo they had trapped, but locals did not want to help Roberts. Because Sithole spoke Zulu, he pleaded with the locals who finally relented and helped the pair with the hippo.
Trok said it was a tragedy of apartheid that Sithole could not formally qualify as a scientist. He formed part of expeditions across Africa and was credited with finding an extremely rare black and white beetle in the sand dunes in Namibia.
Sithole was also involved with many palaeo-anthropological findings, such as working as an assistant with Dr Robert Broom at the Sterkfontein limestone caves. Zitha said her father was extremely proud of being present when Mrs Ples was discovered in 1936. Mrs Ples was the second Australopithecus africanus skull, after the first being the Taung Child.
Trok said last week: “Sithole was very bright and although he didn't study science, he was a scientist. Austin wrote glowingly about him and Professor Thackeray said Saul taught him everything he needed to know when they used to prepare specimens together in the back rooms of the museum.
“When I came across this story, I couldn't believe here was this black guy in the 1930s doing such incredible work with birds and fossils for 62 years. The apartheid years were such a waste. Saul Sithole could have been one of the great scientists of Africa.”
Although having written the book for young adults, the writer said it would also serve as a valuable research tool for the history of birding in South Africa.
“I like to find stories about our unsung heroes who are not mainstream, about people who have achieved despite all the odds stacked against them and I think this book tells the story of one of this country’s great unsung heroes,” she said.
The Forgotten Scientist: The Story of Saul Sithole is available at all major bookstores.
The Independent on Saturday